Reformist Pezeshkian wins Iran’s presidential election

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Reformist candidate Masoud Pezeshkian has won Iran’s presidential election after pledging to re-engage with the west to secure sanctions relief and to relax social restrictions in the Islamic republic.

The former health minister secured 16.3mn votes in Friday’s run-off, defeating hardliner Saeed Jalili who garnered 13.5mn votes, according to the interior ministry.

Pezeshkian’s success is a remarkable turnaround for the reformist camp, which has spent years in the political wilderness. It was bolstered by an increase in turnout which was officially put at 49.8 per cent, compared with a record low of 40 per cent in the first round.

Reformist politicians hailed the result on social media while Pezeshkian supporters staged street celebrations in several cities.

Iran is now set to have its first reformist president in two decades, with the republic at a critical juncture, but Pezeshkian inherits massive challenges. The low turnout underscored the deep sense of disillusionment felt by many Iranians towards their leaders, both reformists and hardliners, and who are loath to be seen to be legitimising the theocratic system through the ballot box.

The republic faces simmering social and economic pressures at home and heightened tensions with the west, fuelled by the Israel-Hamas war and Tehran’s continued expansion of its nuclear programme. The ruling establishment is also preparing for the eventual succession to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the 85-year-old supreme leader.

Khamenei is the republic’s ultimate decision maker over key domestic and foreign affairs. But the president does have influence and can affect the tone and approach of government policies at home and overseas. He heads key state bodies, appoints ministers and manages the economy.

During the campaign Pezeshkian, 69 and a cardiac surgeon, said he would seek to negotiate with the west to end the long stand-off over Iran’s expansion of its nuclear programme, arguing that sanctions relief was crucial to reviving the economy and rein in inflation.

He also suggested he would take a softer stance on social affairs, including restrictions on internet use and enforcement of wearing the hijab. This has been a dominant domestic issue since anti-regime protests swept across the republic after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in police custody in 2022 after being arrested for not properly covering her head.

However, he is considered predictable and not someone who will seek to rock the boat. Throughout the campaign, Pezeshkian emphasised his religious beliefs and reiterated that he would follow Khamenei’s guidelines.

“He will not touch the political aspects [of life], but the social and economic aspects of life will be better and he will support Khamenei to change from confrontation to competition,” said Saeed Laylaz, a reformist analyst.

Any push for reforms is likely to face stiff resistance from hardliners who have controlled the levers of the state since cleric Ebrahim Raisi was elected president in 2021. Raisi died in a helicopter crash in May, triggering the election.

Hardliners control the parliament, which approves ministers’ appointments and legislation, while the elite Revolutionary Guards and other powerful entities hold significant sway over domestic and foreign policy.

Improving relations with the west will also face challenges, with the US in an election year and major western powers angered by Iran’s continued nuclear advances, its sale of armed drones to Russia and human rights abuses. The west will also be sceptical that Pezeshkian’s victory will bring meaningful change.

“The conditions [regarding the nuclear crisis] will be very similar to where we are now. It is the unelected elements of the regime who control the nuclear programme and decisions on whether to agree in negotiations,” said a western official. “We have seen time and time again that Iran’s elected officials have to do what they are told.”

Even those who voted for Pezeshkian are aware of the limited influence he will have. “He’s the only person who can give us what we want. He will have the power to do things, but with others he will make a small difference,” said Ali, a 23-year-old mechanical engineer.

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